Clarion Fire; An Erie Horror Story


By James Donahue


Chief engineer A. Welch’s story of survival on the burning freighter Clarion is enough to send a cold chill down the spine of the most hardened Great Lakes veteran.


Welch and five other men found themselves trapped aboard the burning ship, in the dark of night, with a serious winter gale blowing, and in the middle of Lake Erie without a lifeboat.


The date was December 8, 1909.


Welch told of leading the small band of men in a four-hour battle for their lives, and successfully holding the fire back until the steamer L. C. Hanna came alongside and took them off.


“The intense heat had driven us to about the limit of endurance when we were rescued,” he said.


The other sailors, identified as second engineer John Graham, firemen Harry Murray, Theodore Larson and Joseph Baker, and cook Michael Toomey, praised Welch for his leadership during their ordeal.


Capt. Thomas Bell and another 14 members of the ship’s crew perished.


First Mate James Thompson died when he went below to investigate the fire and was overcome by smoke. Another sailor, identified only as McAuley, fell overboard and drowned while trying to launch the aft lifeboat. The boat was swamped and sunk by a large wave.


Twelve other men got away in the ship’s forward lifeboat, but then drowned when that boat capsized in the storm.


The fire broke out somewhere below deck when the steamer was off Point Pelee, not far from the mouth of the Detroit River.


The Clarion was making what was to have been its last trip of the season, from Chicago to Buffalo, with a cargo of flour, corn and other cargo. Plans were to lay up at Erie for the winter.


Welch said the cause and source of the fire were never known. He said he saw Thompson go below moments after the fire alarm was sounded. Thompson was never seen again.


“He must have been overcome by the smoke which soon began to roll out of the hatchways in dense volumes,” Welch said.


“The fire spread so quickly that there was no time to effect a rescue. In an incredibly short time the hold was a seething mass of flames and the boat, owing to the loss of her steering, was completely out of hand.


“We saw Captain Bell and the forward crew launching the big metallic lifeboat and we turned to the light wooden boat on the davits aft. Her lines were coated with ice, and long before we got them clear Captain Bell and the other members of the crew succeeded in getting away,” he said.


After the unsuccessful launch of the aft lifeboat and McAuley’s fatal plunge into the sea, Welch said he and the others still trapped aboard the burning ship found themselves in a battle for their lives.


“There we were, with a roaring furnace beneath our feet and without a boat, even if one could live in such a sea,” he said.


Needless to say, the Hanna was a welcome sight when it drew alongside the burning ship.


The Clarion burned until it sank somewhere off Southeast Shoal.


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